US, Japan train for island defense

An MV-22 Osprey aircraft prepares to land on Iwakuni Air Base, Yamaguchi prefecture, southern Japan, after a test flight Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. The U.S. Marines conducted their test flights of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft in Japan after months of protests there over safety concerns. Flight operations were conducted at the base where they are temporarily deployed before being transferred to Okinawa. Photo: AP

Japan's military is sharpening its skills at defending remote islands with the help of US troops, as Tokyo faces an increasingly contentious dispute with China.

In a move that signals how the two allies are adjusting their defense cooperation to counter China, troops from Japan's Ground Self Defense Force since mid-August have been receiving training on amphibious military tactics from the US Marine Corps.

During the final session, which runs through Tuesday on Guam and other US-controlled islands, roughly 40 troops from the Japanese army have trained with their Marine counterparts to make landing by boat or helicopter, and expel imaginary enemy forces that have taken over key facilities, such as a port and an airport on jungle-covered islands.

As the key US military partner in Asia, Japan's Self Defense Forces regularly conduct joint exercises with US troops. But US and Japanese officials say the current session is the first drill devoted to island defense by the American and Japanese units.

Japanese and US officials stress they don't envision any specific country as an enemy as they conduct these drills. But the occasion is a provocative show of unity between the two allies, coming at a time when a dispute over a group of small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea brings tensions between Japan and China to levels not seen in many years. The exercise—while scheduled weeks ago—coincided with a period when anti-Japan protests turned violent in some Chinese cities, pro- and anti-Japanese activists have landed on the islands, and a small fleet of Chinese boats have hovered for days near the waters of Diaoyu Islands.

"We are out here to train together—so we can operate and work together better in the future for any contingency, whether that be humanitarian or disaster-relief issues, or contingency response," said Col. John Merna, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expedition Unit, the host of the Japanese troops. "Our ability to operate together will only help stabilize the region and move all of our desires forward."

Col. Merna spoke to reporters aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship off the coast of Guam. Training of the Japanese team was conducted as part of a broader Marine Corps certification exercise, to train the Marines for combat.

A spokesman for China's foreign ministry said Beijing had taken note of the exercise. Spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing Japan should draw lessons from history and "adhere to pursuing the road of peaceful development."

On Saturday, the Japanese troops participated in a landing exercise on a beach on Guam's northeastern shore. Along with scores of Marines, they boarded rubber boats dispatched from a US vessel. Once securing the beach, the Japanese soldiers advanced on land to retake the area from hypothetical enemy forces, carrying rifles, and some crawling on their stomachs. They wore fatigues in green a shade darker than their US counterparts.

Capt. Tobin Walker, commander of the Marine boating company that conducted Saturday's landing drill, described the Japanese soldiers, who are on average a couple of years older than the Marines in his team, as "very mature and very excited about learning."

"They've learned very quickly," he said, adding that "lots and lots of practice" is still needed until they master the skills of amphibious fighting.

The session on Guam showed the difficulty and unpredictability of such tactics. A nighttime boat raid on Thursday, for example, was cut short because of the surf conditions, just as the troops were about to launch their boats from the main ship that had come within several hundred yards of the shore. It would have been a strenuous 12-hour drill featuring a long hike from a secluded beach through steep jungle hills to free a building captured by guerrilla forces.

Japan's Self Defense Forces have identified strengthening island defense capability as a key new strategy since 2010—the last time tensions flared up over the islands, when a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Japanese Coast Guard boat. With an eye toward Chinese naval activities in the East China Sea, Japan is upgrading air-surveillance functions and preparing to build a military base on a remote island near the disputed territory. To add to its water-to-land capability, the defense ministry has requested the funds to purchase next year the nation's first amphibious armored vehicles. Japan's military doesn't have a Marine division.

"Until now, we haven't paid much attention to island defense," Eiji Kimizuka, JGSDF's chief of staff told reporters Sunday after surveying the exercise. "Our capability for amphibious landing—the area of expertise for the Marines—is severely limited. I hope these drills will help us make strides."

The US is beefing up cooperation with its regional allies, as it rebalances its military forces to Asia to respond to the changing landscape. Increased participation in regional security from Japan is seen as essential, given the huge size of Japan's military. While the nation's pacifist constitution severely limits its activities, Japan's Self Defense Forces are among the world's largest armed forces, with annual military spending ranking No. 6 in the world—or No. 2 in Asia after China—last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"The deterrence posture of the alliance can be strengthened by enhanced defense cooperation, in particular by expanding joint training and exercises in Japan's southwest, by information sharing, patrolling and surveillance activities," said James Przystup, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

The current exercise was implemented in response to a new US-Japan bilateral defense-cooperation agreement signed in April. The agreement calls for strengthening "interoperability" between US and Japanese forces, and building permanent training facilities on Guam and in the nearby Northern Mariana Islands. Such facilities will mark the first permanent post for the Japanese military within US territory since World War II.

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